Resource Use

A guide to what you can and can't recycle this Christmas

From mistletoe and mince pies to ugly sweaters and tipsy relatives, every family celebrating Christmas has a different take on some age-old traditions. But Christmas waste is a not-so-festive tradition the UK recognises every year, with stories surfacing each December about the excess of paper and packaging that ends up in landfill after the celebrations are over.

A guide to what you can recycle this Christmas
The fancy bits on wrapping paper and card could make them non-recyclable, so make sure you check before binning them
69 per cent of people feel that the amount of waste thrown out at Christmas is unacceptable, according to a recent survey conducted on behalf of Sky’s Ocean Rescue campaign. However, 22 per cent of those surveyed also claimed to have too much waste in their homes to recycle during the festive period.

Sorting out your Christmas waste might feel like a struggle, but much of the problem comes from competing and often conflicting information about what can and cannot be recycled from those festive leftovers. More and more local authorities are wising up to the Christmas waste question and providing advice on their websites, but when it comes to wrapping paper and Christmas cards this advice is often very varied due to differences in reprocessors’ approaches.

To get to the heart of the matter, Resource went direct to some of Europe’s biggest recycling firms to ask what Christmas waste they will accept, and why.

“The festive period is always one of the most challenging when it comes to managing your waste and ensuring it’s handled responsibly,” said Biffa spokesperson Fran Morrissy. “But a lot of the waste created at Christmas can be recycled and put to better use, including Christmas trees, mince pie foil and certain types of wrapping paper.”

The UK uses enough to wrap Big Ben almost 260,000 times (better than scaffolding, though)
Wrapping paper is one of the more contentious items for local authorities, with some accepting it and others, such as Exeter City Council, implementing a blanket ban, stating that its paper mill will reject any waste bales containing wrapping paper.

There are two issues here that cause problems for reprocessors: the quality of the paper itself, and the contamination of recyclate in general caused by additions to the paper, such as sellotape and glitter.

Georgina Cullen, Business Development Director for recycling company Casepak, said: “Although wrapping paper is paper, we try and avoid accepting this with the mixed recycling. A lot of wrapping paper contains contamination; sellotape and some types of paper, such as the foil/glitter-based wrapping paper, are classed as a prohibited item.”

Morrissy concurred, listing foil, glossy and laminated wrapping paper as items that belong in general waste rather than the recycling bin. “If in doubt, try the wrapping paper scrunch test - scrunch the wrapping paper in your hand, and if it stays scrunched it can be recycled. If it springs back it probably has metallised plastic film in it which cannot be recycled.”

Metallised film is a glossy material used for wrappings and decorations including tinsel and helium balloons. It contains both plastic and metal layers, most commonly PET plastic and aluminium. Separating these layers is complex enough, but the film could also have a paper layer, or additional coatings of plastic, with each different material creating new difficulties for the recycling process; for instance, a reprocessor able to recover the plastic from metallised film may not be able to process a paper layer alongside this.

As a result of these complexities, glossy wrapping paper like this cannot be recycled alongside normal paper, and if other facilities are available the cost for councils tends to be very high. So the advice is simple: opt for recycled and/or non-metallic paper to wrap your presents and remove any additions (like sellotape or ribbons) before recycling. The scrunch test comes out on top as the most important thing to remember if in doubt: simply scrunch up the paper and see if it bounces back flat - if it does, it can’t be recycled.

Recycling guidelines for Christmas cards are just as simple: Biffa recommends avoiding glitter and sequins, which “can be problematic for recycling purposes”, as the glitter is manufactured from tiny pieces of plastic - any other cards are ideal for recycling.

Though Peter Clayson, General Manager (Business Development and External Affairs) at DS Smith Recycling says that recycling processes differ from local authority to local authority, so it is hard to make blanket statements, there are some issues that will cause all reprocessors trouble. “As glitter is a comparable size to paper fibres, it can often be missed during the initial filtering process in our paper mills. As such, glitter can often stay in the production process all the way to final paper production, which means that when we test for contaminants, the whole roll may be rejected if we find the presence of glitter.”

Cullen admitted that Casepak usually sees an increase in contamination after Christmas, something attributed to disrupted collections: “A large number of residents will start putting general waste into recycling bins once the black bins are full.” She continued: “Loads can be rejected in full, or a percentage of the load rejected. We would normally reject if 10 per cent of a load is contaminated.”

However Clayson says that, contrary to many reports in the sensationalist press, the nature Christmas waste does not bring disproportionate rejections from recyclers: “As volumes go up, there tends to be a proportional increase in issues, but this is simply due to the increased amount of material being handled – it’s not specific to the festive period. We assess every delivered load and, where possible, try not to reject a load by isolating individual bales if contamination is very localised.”

Maximising the amount of waste correctly going into recycling bins not only prevents entire loads being rejected, but frees up space in black bins for the small amount of Christmas waste which is actually unrecyclable. See below for Resource’s summary of simple tips for easy festive recycling.


Reuse and recycling tips for Christmas wrapping
Wrapping paper

Check on your council’s website to see if it accepts wrapping paper - if so, follow the scrunch test! If it stays scrunched up it can be recycled - if not, put it in the general waste bin.

Remove sellotape before recycling.

Consider saving your wrapping paper so that you can reuse it next year.

Cardboard

Chances are, despite your best efforts, you still had to revert to the internet to finish off your Christmas shopping. We use around 300,000 tonnes of card packaging every Christmas (the equivalent of two million reindeer) - make sure all your boxes make it into the recycling.

A lovely card, but those sequins could be a problem
Christmas cards

Easily recyclable unless they have glitter on.

Plastic packaging

Getting rid of all the cases, bottles, boxes and so on can get tricky. Recycling symbols on packaging show what can usually be recycled and you’ll have to check your council’s website if you’re unsure about what types of plastic they collect. All clear and coloured plastic bottles from the home can usually be recycled, including bleach products.

Food waste

After making the most of your inevitable leftovers with some creative cooking (bubble and squeak, anyone?) anything that can’t be eaten should go straight into the food waste bin.

Christmas trees

Real trees can be recycled into wood chippings. Many local authorities advertise designated collection days in early January. Artificial trees can’t be recycled, but if you’re not re-using it, why not take it to a local charity shop?

Decorations

Luckily, most of our Christmas decorations can be reused year-on-year. For those that are completely worn out, some can be recycled:

Wreaths can go into your garden waste as long as they don’t have glitter or glue on them.

Fairy lights are classed as Waste Electrical and Electronic Equipment (WEEE) and should go to your local household waste recycling centre, not into the general bin.

Tired tinsel and broken baubles (glass or plastic) cannot currently be recycled in the UK and should go into the general waste bin.